Comment – A problem that will never be solved…

Thieves are growing ever-more sophisticated in their attacks on the demolition industry.

Comment IllustrationBack in the dim and distant past when I was deputy editor of the now defunct Plant Managers Journal magazine (it died long after I’d left, before you ask), I organised and hosted an industry forum meeting to look at the issue of equipment theft which, at the time, was believed to be costing the industry £100 million/year. In attendance were several equipment manufacturers, a couple of plant hirers, insurance companies, and a pair of officers from the Kent police force who – at the time – were spearheading a crackdown on plant theft. That meeting was 27 years ago.

This week, I attended the seventh annual meeting of the Combined Industry Theft Solutions conference at the JCB World headquarters to look at precisely the same issue although on a far larger scale. This proves two key things: firstly that our meeting and all subsequent industry efforts have failed to drive out the thieves; and secondly that my once promising journalistic career achieved a relatively shallow trajectory and has largely flat-lined ever since.

The latest CITS conference was notable for several reasons, not least the total absence of any demolition representation. Apparently, although attachments seem to go walkabout with alarming regularity, demolition considers the subject of equipment theft as somehow beneath it.

Despite the advent of mechanical and electronic devices to prevent theft, deter thieves or to aid in the recovery of the equipment if it is stolen, plant theft is a problem that refuses to go away. In fact, if industry estimates are anything to go by, it is now costing the industry somewhere in the region of £800 million per year. And we thought we had it bad in 1987!

“Plant theft is a problem that will never be solved,” said CITS chairman Ian Elliott during the conference. “The better anti-theft systems have become, the more sophisticated the thieves have grown.”

In truth, however, the tide IS turning. According to Home Office statistics, machinery theft is down nationally by 65 percent since 2010, and down by 75 percent in and around London. But the audacity of the thieves, coupled with the increasing cost of the equipment being stolen and the knock-on lost time and contract penalty costs means that the true cost is heading inexorably to the £1.0 billion mark.

And it doesn’t end there. While the loss of an excavator, hydraulic breaker or multi-processor is immediately identifiable, other less visible but equally pernicious forms of theft are also on the rise. According to Charlie McMurdie from Price Waterhouse Coopers, cyber-crime has already hit around a quarter of a million UK businesses to the tune of more than £400 million. “If you think you haven’t been hit by cyber-crime, you’re looking in the wrong place,” was McMurdie’s stark warning.

And even if you satisfy your Luddite fear of modernity by operating your demolition company from a cave with sketchy wi-fi, the thieves still have you – or, rather, your fuel – in their sights. Some 60 percent of Road Haulage Association members are reported to have fallen victim to fuel theft while construction statistics suggest that as much of 10 percent of all fuel used in construction (and by construction, they mean construction AND demolition) is lost to external and internal thieves.

For all the advances made by equipment manufacturers to minimise fuel consumption, the chances are that tens of thousands of pounds of diesel are still being lost each year. The only real difference is that the loss is going to fuel organised crime gangs rather than merely punching a hole in an already depleted ozone layer.